A man proclaims the greatness of Modi as he cycles around the Kumbh Mela. (Photographer: Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)  

Modi’s Big Play for India’s Heartland Could Backfire

(Bloomberg) -- The holy city of Ayodhya swarms with barefoot pilgrims crying out in prayer as they shuffle along a cramped line, past four security pat-downs, for a glimpse of a makeshift Hindu temple.

The modest pile of stone is at the center of India’s most polarizing dispute. It’s here, at the supposed birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, that Hindu radicals demolished a 16th century mosque in 1992, sparking religious riots that killed some 2,000 people. And it’s here that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party is anchoring his bid for re-election.

Modi’s Big Play for India’s Heartland Could Backfire

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party is betting that religious nationalism—including ramping up efforts to build the Ram temple, symbolically renaming cities and allocating almost $600 million to a mass Hindu pilgrimage—can shore up its vote in elections due by May. But a three-day tour through swing districts in India’s most populous state showed it may not be enough to make up for Modi’s inability to deliver on core pledges to create millions of jobs, transform the economy and bring prosperity to farmers.

Even in Ayodhya, ground zero for Hindu nationalism, there are doubts about the sincerity of Modi’s party and its renewed emphasis on religion.

“If they had any intention of building the temple, they could have done it by now,” said Lale Vaishya, a pilgrim who traveled nearly 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) to visit the site in Uttar Pradesh state. “They are playing politics.”

Modi propelled his BJP into office in 2014 with the largest majority in three decades. Yet shock defeats in state elections in December added to indications that, after nearly five years in power, his electoral juggernaut may be in trouble. What limited polling there is suggests voter support for the BJP is flagging and Modi faces a battle to retain his majority in elections that were until recently seen as a formality.

The injection of uncertainty explains the return to issues like religion, according to Sanjay Kumar, director of the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies and an expert in electoral politics. “There’s a conscious effort on behalf of the BJP to pick up these larger narratives, so that they can cover the failures of their non-performance,” he said.

Modi’s Big Play for India’s Heartland Could Backfire

With some 875 million voters, India’s election will be the biggest democratic exercise in history. And the stakes are high. If Modi wins a strong mandate, he’ll have another five-year term to continue pulling India’s ideological center to the right—and another shot at the reforms needed to advance the country of 1.3 billion. A weaker mandate, or even a surprise victory for the opposition, could mean an unruly coalition dogged by instability.

The election is likely to be decided in Uttar Pradesh, a northern state of more than 200 million people that sends the most lawmakers to parliament—and where Modi has his electoral district. His party swept 71 of the state’s 80 seats in 2014, and the opposition is determined to deny the BJP success this time around.

Modi’s Big Play for India’s Heartland Could Backfire

The BJP has for decades relied on the state’s Ram temple and Hindu nationalism more broadly to fan support. In office, Modi’s government abolished the Muslim practice of instant divorce, a move applauded by the Hindu majority.

Modi’s Big Play for India’s Heartland Could Backfire

The BJP’s catering to Hindus is on full show at Prayagraj, host city of the Kumbh Mela, the world’s biggest religious gathering. It takes place at the confluence of three sacred rivers: the holy Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythological Saraswati mentioned in religious texts.

Last year, in the run-up to the 49-day festival, the state’s BJP administration—headed by a Hindu priest—dropped the city’s Islamic name, Allahabad, and coordinated with the central government to spend huge sums on infrastructure.

A new airport is under construction, while at the river, where pilgrims bathe to wash away their sins, tent cities have been erected and floating bridges allow the faithful to walk out across the water. “Hindus are proud that Modi has made such magnificent arrangements,” said Ashok Kumar Shivhare, a 53-year-old pilgrim.

Modi’s Big Play for India’s Heartland Could Backfire

Others see an unseemly election ploy. “Modi’s government has not fulfilled 80 percent of what it committed to,” Rajesh Yogi, a farmer, said angrily as a crowd gathered. After supporting Modi in 2014, he plans to vote against the ruling party. “I am telling this truth on the banks of the Ganges,” he said.

In the nearby constituency of Phulpur, which the BJP won in 2014 and subsequently lost in a special election, people huddle around cooking fires as dusk falls.

For farmer Ganesh Kumar Yadav, who abandoned Modi in last year’s ballot after voting for him in 2014, religious issues count for little. He said fertilizer is still too costly, while Modi’s abrupt decision in 2016 to abolish 86 percent of India’s currency notes overnight led to his mother losing 35,000 rupees ($490), an enormous sum in rural India.

“He has done a lot for the Kumbh Mela, but he hasn’t done anything for farmers,” Yadav said. He too said he’ll shun the BJP in this year’s election.

A four hour drive east in Azamgarh, which the BJP lost in 2014 after taking it at the previous federal election, local party president Jaynath Singh denies the government is pushing Hindu nationalism. “Modi’s influence continues, and people are enthusiastic about him,” Singh said.

Modi’s Big Play for India’s Heartland Could Backfire

Overt religious nationalism—in an officially secular nation—has been blamed for fanning radicalism, including so-called cow vigilantes who have attacked and killed Muslims over alleged animal slaughter. The BJP denies any association with fringe elements.

Still, G.V.L Narasimha Rao, a BJP lawmaker and spokesman, said the party is not afraid to capitalize on its Hindu nationalist roots. “Our ideological foundations and ideological framework are well known,” Rao said.

Modi’s Big Play for India’s Heartland Could Backfire

There’s an indelible link between Modi and radical Hinduism. Before entering politics, Modi spent years as a grassroots-level propagandist for a Hindu nationalist organization known as the RSS with close ties to his party. When chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, his state was rocked by deadly riots mostly targeting Muslims. Modi was subsequently denied a visa to visit the U.S., though a legal probe later cleared him of blame.

This year’s campaign focus on Hindu nationalism could again prove deadly. According to a U.S. intelligence threat assessment, BJP policies under Modi “have deepened communal tensions” in some states governed by his party, whose leaders “might view a Hindu nationalist campaign as a signal to incite low-level violence to animate their supporters.”

Modi’s Big Play for India’s Heartland Could Backfire

Renaming cities is one, relatively straightforward way to send signals to Hindus, who make up roughly 80 percent of India’s population compared to about 14 percent Muslim. Another was the choice of Varanasi, one of Hinduism’s holiest cities, as Modi’s constituency.

Raising a Hindu temple in Ayodhya is proving more difficult. The site has been contentious since the days of the British Raj, with a legal case first lodged back in 1885, according to The Hindu newspaper. The temple’s fate is still stuck in the courts; construction is blocked pending a ruling and the compound secured by hundreds of armed police and paramilitary forces.

This week, Modi’s government asked the Supreme Court to give back land surrounding the contested site to a Hindu group that supports construction of a temple. The BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the monk Yogi Adityanath, urged the court in an India TV interview to deliver its verdict soon, or “hand the issue over to us.”

Modi’s Big Play for India’s Heartland Could Backfire

“Whatever the courts decide, we will abide by,” said Iqbal Ansari, a plaintiff in the case whose father was a custodian of the destroyed mosque. A Muslim, he’s had police protection since 1993.

Elsewhere in Ayodhya, Hindu priest Kamal Nayan Das sits cross-legged on a small dais, his forehead smeared with saffron-colored paste. He says a court verdict won’t deter him, and feels that Modi is on his side.

“We want a very grand temple here,” he said, as a worshiper laid an offering of pomegranates at his feet. “We’ll agitate across the whole country if Hindu society is upset with the court’s decision.” Modi has his vote.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.